As college campuses throughout the United States continue to be accused of anti-Jewish/Israel behavior, Yale University, with a legacy of anti-Semitism, joins the contemporary ranks of insensitivity to the Jewish people.
Less than one year after its very first conference of YIISA (Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism) Yale has decided to discontinue the widely acclaimed unique program, claiming that YIISA did not stimulate sufficient scholarship to warrant its continuance.
Scholars worldwide have vocalized great dismay characterizing YIISA’s closure as a setback to the study of anti Semitism and a substantial loss and blemish on Yale itself. Many surmise that whereas YIISA’s focus on Holocaust Jewish hate was an acceptable course of study, its attention to modern Islamic anti-Semitism/Israel was academic suicide.
The Jewish Star spoke with noted attorney, Harvard professor, author, YIISA presenter and Yale graduate Alan Dershowitz about the anti Israel/Jewish phenomenon on college campuses. (Full disclosure: David F. Nesenoff was a keynote speaker at the 2010 YIISA conference, “Global Anti Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity.”)
David F. Nesenoff: I attended the YIISA conference last year at Yale and was saddened to hear the news of its closing. I know you have had a relationship with Yale and the conference and wanted to hear your thoughts.
Alan Dershowitz: I am also very saddened to have learned the news. It’s the worst possible time for Yale to have terminated this excellent organization. The need to study the changing face of anti-Semitism around the world has never been greater. This is a serious subject of academic research and discourse. And the Yale center was an excellent center to do it. So I’m distressed and I hope it’s not a final decision.
DFN: Do you think it was for bad reasons? Yale is claiming that YIISA didn’t reach an academic level.
AD: That doesn’t satisfy me, at the least. I think it reached a high academic level. Normally if there is any concern, you sit down with the people and you give them an opportunity to set it right. This sounds too precipitous to me and unfair.
DFN: I know the conference did touch upon the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel, which is a line that is so often being broken down today.
AD: That is an important issue to study. This institution studied it very well and there is a need to continue to study it. It is much more difficult to study it today. It is the only time in history where to study anti-Semitism is to be accused of racism on the other side. It’s a very dangerous phenomenon. The answer is not to shut down an institute like this, which is doing great work, but to continue to study the problem in a creative way.
DFN: What’s happening on campuses today? You’re right in the thick of things.
AD: I am right in the thick of things. It depends on where. In many places in the world like in Norway where I just recently came from a visit, it is overt anti-Semitism pure and simple, reminiscent of the 1930s in Germany.
DFN: Tell me a real example of this overt anti-Semitism on campus.
AD: A leading professor at Turtheim University talks about how the Jews do this and how the Jews do that. The Jews as a group. That’s just overt anti-Semitism. When you have a guy like Gilad Otzmon, a former Israeli, who says that Jews are terrible people and the Holocaust didn’t occur, it’s overt. In the United States it’s more subtle. And that only increases the need to have it studied well.
DFN: Do you think it is a different type of animal to study, so therefore it doesn’t fit into the type of category the way one would study something else?
AD: I think that’s right. It presents an academic challenge. A third example [of overt anti-Semitism] is Helen Thomas. Hardly anybody disputes the fact that Helen Thomas is a classic anti-Semite and has expressed classic anti-Semitic views as has Patrick Buchanan and others. The bigger problem is the more subtle forms that you find at the University of California, Davis and Irvine. Ironically, you don’t find it at Yale. You don’t find it at Harvard. Maybe, because Yale doesn’t see it directly on its campus, that it’s not sensitive to the worldwide phenomenon.
DFN: I don’t know if it’s overt or covert, but where does Arab funding fit into anti-Semitism on college campuses?
AD: When you have funding with springs attached it always presents the problem of academic freedom. I think there is some of that on campuses. Going back to Yale for a moment… when I was at Yale, there was overt anti-Semitism. The slogan of Yale was “urim v’tumim” [light and truth] in Hebrew. The joke was if you could read it, you can’t go there. The college had an overt quota system. I was not in the college. I couldn’t get into the college obviously. When I went to the law school there was overt anti-Semitism in the hiring process by law firms. And there were secret clubs that didn’t allow in Jews. That was 50 years ago. Yale has a terrible legacy of anti-Semitism, which should make it sensitive to the issue.
DFN: What of the Jewish participation as far as the blame game is concerned. Do Jews do enough on campus, whether it be faculty or student body, to fight this type of anti Semitism, to speak up or to attend programs?
AD: I think some of the blame lies not only with the Jewish faculty members but with pro Israel faculty members who are too frightened to speak up because it makes them unpopular. You pay a price on campus today for being pro Israel. Even I pay a price for that.
DFN: What’s that price right now?
AD: The price is isolation, marginalization, people say, “Oh it’s Dershowitz, we know his views.” I have been excluded from certain events and conferences and honor societies and other kinds of things because of my pro support for Israel. And it sends a message to younger people. In my case I don’t care because I’m established. But it sends a very dangerous message to young faculty that if you are perceived as too strongly supportive of Israel, you will be marginalized and discriminated against. And I have no doubt in my mind, that phenomenon exists.
DFN: The flavor is getting spicier with September coming, with the de-legitimization of Israel getting stronger. It would seem that a program like YIISA should be bolstered from every angle.
AD: No question. There should have been a public debate about it. The university should have sought public input from faculty and other people. For example, I’m an alum; I’m a member of the Board of Advisors. I never got a phone call. I was never asked my views on this matter. I’ve spoken for them. You would think that the University might call me and others like me, or at least get our input. They didn’t.
DFN: Yale has given me a list of all the wonderful Jewish things they do. “My best friends are Jews” list.
AD: Yale does wonderful Jewish things. That’s no answer.
DFN: I guess there’s a difference between Judaic studies, Jewish folklore and history and actually combating a strong hate toward a people and their country?
AD: Jewish study programs around the country have been notoriously anti-Israel. 30 Jewish studies professors in California wrote a letter in support of the Muslim students who disrupted Michael Oren’s speech and nobody was surprised.
DFN: What do you see of the future of the study of anti-Semitism, if Yale University is closing its conference after one year?
AD: I think this deals a serious blow to it and at precisely the wrong time in history. I think it shows an enormous lack of courage on the part of Yale to have terminated the program in the way that they did.